Kidnapped in Iraq

Friendly Fire
by Giuliana Sgrena. Translated by Lesley Freeman Riva
Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2006, 215 pp., $20 hardcover

“The Jill Carroll Story” By Jill Carroll with contextual narrative by Peter Grier
The Christian Science Monitor, August 14–18; August 21–25; August 28 2006. Available online at http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/carroll/index.html

Reviewed by Kerryn Higgs

More than one hundred journalists have died in Iraq since 2003, a degree of jeopardy not experienced by reporters in the past—even by war correspondents. Attack has come from all sides—including US forces. Journalists have also been kidnapped, along with aid workers, peace activists, and military contractors. Westerners, however, are only a small fraction of the total number of civilians taken for ransom; in Friendly Fire, Italian reporter Giuliana Sgrena tells of “thousands of Iraqis taken hostage for ransom or extortion.” According to the New York Times (November 26, 2006), a classified US government report recently estimated that about $36 million is paid in ransoms every year, some $30 million by foreign governments in 2005.
Jill Carroll and Giuliana Sgrena are among the journalists kidnapped in Iraq. Both women lived through their captivity and were set free.
American Jill Carroll was 28 in early 2006 when she was kidnapped by Sunni insurgents allied with “al Qaeda in Iraq.” She had worked for the Wall Street Journal after college, set out alone for the Middle East, studied Arabic for a time in Jordan, and went on to work in Iraq as a freelancer in October 2003. She was on assignment for the Christian Science Monitor when she was captured. After her ordeal, Carroll decided to write “The Jill Carroll Story” for the Monitor. She won the Chicago Journalists Association’s Daniel Pearl Award for courage and integrity in journalism and was honoured in October 2006 by the International Women's Media Foundation for putting her profession and the search for truth before her own safety.
Italian Giulana Sgrena was 56 when she was abducted by a different group of Sunni fighters in February 2005. She had worked for the Communist paper Il Manifesto since 1988 and was a veteran of numerous war zones, including Algeria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. After her release in March 2005, Sgrena was critically wounded by US forces on the road to the airport. Her escort, senior Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari, was killed protecting her.
Both women went into the streets of Baghdad to investigate the situation there for themselves, at a time when most journalists who were not embedded with the US military had retreated to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified US sector of Baghdad. Each woman travelled with only a translator and a driver. Neither had any security staff. Both aimed to record the stories of ordinary Iraqis. Sgrena was especially dedicated to the people of Falluja, most of them refugees by the time she was taken prisoner.
Giuliana Sgrena arrived in Baghdad from Italy in time for the January 2005 elections. This was her seventh trip to Iraq since early 2003, when she had remained in the city through the US bombardment and invasion. Now, she was determined to give the refugees from the ruined city of Falluja an opportunity to tell their stories.
Sgrena had followed the fate of Falluja and its people since the first conflicts with US troops erupted in April 2003. The Sunni population of the “city of mosques” was unhappy with the US occupation from the beginning, and increasingly so as time went on. Residents complained that during night-time incursions, US troops stole money and jewellery, arrested random civilians, and spied on women. After the grotesque execution of four Blackwater security company contractors in March 2004, the first full-scale US assault on Falluja was launched and then abandoned. In November 2004, in a ferocious battle aimed at eliminating the resistance based there, the city was overrun and much of it razed.
During the first year of the occupation, Sgrena went to Falluja whenever she was in Iraq:
I had met willing sources with whom a real friendship and collaboration was born. They were convinced of the necessity of telling the world about the reality of Falluja, and so they helped me with my work… We’d all sit on the floor… following tribal custom, and discuss the latest events.
After the April 2004 assault, Sgrena had trouble contacting her friends by phone. In the November attack, their house was bombed to rubble, and she had no way of knowing what had become of them. An Iraqi friend told her: “I won’t take you to the Fallujan refugees. It’s too dangerous. They’re very angry… they barely trust other Iraqis, never mind Westerners!”
Sgrena did finally manage to locate Fallujan refugees willing to speak to her at the Mustafa Mosque on the edge of the Baghdad University campus and spent a whole morning there, recording their stories of loss and humiliation. Nonetheless, when she presented herself to thank the imam for allowing her to be there, he and his followers were scornful about the idea of informing the world about Falluja. Compensation and reconstruction, they said, would be more to the point. Though Sgrena does not suggest  that the imam was involved, she was kidnapped shortly after the interviews, as she drove away.
We don’t know much about Sgrena’s captors, except that they were Sunnis who saw themselves as freedom fighters and denied that they were with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “cutthroats.” They appeared quite religious, but Sgrena’s guess was that they did not belong to the fundamentalist strand of Islam. She was held by two men in the same darkened room throughout her captivity. She used the call of the muezzin and knots in the fringe of her shawl to keep track of time. For four weeks, missing her beloved cats, she wandered through her life’s memories, afraid she might lose her mind. At the same time, she remained defiant toward her guards, partly to maintain her dignity but also because of the absurdity of the situation: Italy’s conservative Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was hardly going to withdraw his troops, as the kidnappers demanded, to save a prominent leftist.
Friendly Fire begins with a brief account of Sgrena’s abduction and captivity and ends with the US attack on her car near Baghdad airport, but the heart of this book, drawing on her observations and experiences throughout the occupation, is an exploration of what she characterizes as the Islamization of Iraq in the aftermath of the botched US invasion. She saw at first hand how “[t]he power vacuum created by the violent overthrow of the dictator [had] in fact simply been filled by the only forces who were able—through a network of mosques—to preserve some form of organization.” It was Shiite mullahs who stopped looters and took over hospitals, trying and punishing offenders according to shari’a or Koranic law. As Shiites came to dominate the elected government, their militias joined police and security forces and conducted death squad operations under cover of their uniforms.
The consequences for women, Christians, academics—and any Iraqi who is not religious—have been catastrophic. Iraq, among the most secular societies in the Arab world before the invasion, is now in the hands of clerics. The progressive 1959 family code was abolished in December 2003 and replaced with shari’a. Universities are run by Islamist organizations that separate the sexes, impose dress regulations, and discourage women from attending at all. Professional women have been murdered and raped. Thousands of academics and professionals of both sexes have been killed. Christians have been targeted for failure to wear the veil. Washington-based freelance journalist Nir Rosen told the radio program Democracy Now! on November 29, 2006 that over two million of the 25 million people who lived in Iraq before the occupation are refugees in neighboring countries, including a large proportion of the old professional classes—and that several thousand still cross into Syria every day. In January 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that, in addition to those who have fled from Iraq, some 1.7 million Iraqis are displaced inside the country.
As a longtime supporter of women’s rights in Muslim countries, Sgrena has many contacts amongst Iraqi women. Her chapter on women reveals that many have become victims of the new order. In the words of activist Amal al Mualimchi, “Women have two choices: face the threat of rape and subsequent murder at the hands of their families, or seclusion at home.” Sgrena tells several stories of particular tribulations:
[T]wo young sisters, aged fourteen and fifteen… from a poor family… had been hanging around the American soldiers… in Sowera.  One night... the two girls were raped and beaten almost to death… [O]ne subsequently died… the surviving girl had been assassinated by relatives, at the urging of tribal and religious leaders. Women are thus victims of the Americans, of a conservative society, and of Islamist fanatics.
The last thing her captors said to Sgrena when they released her, was: “We promised your family that you’d return home safe and sound, but be careful: the Americans don’t want you to return to Italy alive.” At that point, Sgrena put it down to anti-American ranting, not imagining that her criticism of the war and occupation might lead to retaliation from US forces—but the warning turned out to be prophetic. Shortly afterward, as her car neared the airport, her escort was dead and she was badly wounded. Had her escort not thrown himself across her body, she too might have been killed.
Sgrena disputes the official US account: that her vehicle was speeding and was warned and signalled to stop, and that only one soldier was firing. The bullets did not hit the front of her car as warning shots might have done, nor were they aimed at the body of the car. They came from a Humvee parked on the side of the road and seemed to be aimed directly at her and her escort.
Whether the shots fired by the soldiers on Roadblock 541 were specifically intended for Sgrena or whether the men had inadequate forewarning and overreacted in error is unlikely ever to be known. US authorities impounded the car and failed to preserve the scene. The official investigation exonerated the soldiers.
For Sgrena, a dedicated opponent of the Iraq invasion and of Italy’s participation, being kidnapped by the Iraqi resistance was certainly an egregious case of “friendly fire.” The “friendliness” of the attack by US troops is harder to assess.
Jill Carroll was kidnapped as she drove away from a delayed appointment at the offices of Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi, in a neighborhood not yet reckoned as no-go, but not far from the area where, in separate incidents, Sgrena and the French journalist Florence Aubenas had been abducted a year earlier. It was February 7, 2006, three weeks after the election of the first permanent Iraqi government. As usual, Carroll was out with her translator, Alan Enwiya.
We had been a team for almost two years. We were also friends—it felt as if we were almost siblings—who’d worked through Iraq’s difficult and increasingly dangerous conditions. In our time together we’d eked out a living freelancing for the Italian news agency ANSA, USA Today, US News & World Report, and now The Christian Science Monitor. We had been threatened by militia members, mobbed after Friday prayers, and seen bullets rain down from passing police vehicles. We’d walked hours through Baghdad soliciting interviews from ordinary Iraqi voters.
Their car was stopped just after they left al-Dulaimi’s office. Gunmen surrounded them and Enwiya was shot dead. “Other men jumped in sandwiching me between them. We sped away,” says Carroll. “‘Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!’ my abductors shouted, excited and joyful. ‘Jihad! Jihad!’” Enwiya’s murder would haunt Carroll throughout her captivity. No matter how civil or even kindly her captors sometimes seemed, the recollection of her friend’s death cut across fleeting moments of hope.
Carroll was held in the family homes of group members and in men-only safe houses. She was treated with a curious mixture of respect, even hospitality; threats both spoken and implicit; and petty displays of power. Sometimes she was served meals fit for honored guests or given expensive toiletries. On the first night she was invited to watch TV with the family and even to choose the channel. “Channel-surfing with the mujahideen” felt terribly risky, since she might choose the “wrong” channel and invite reprisal, but her choice—Oprah—turned out to be acceptable. Sometimes her guards brought her tea, professed brotherhood, or smiled and pulled back the curtains to let in the sun. When she was held in family homes, she was often permitted to cook with the women and play with and cuddle the younger children—a “small joy that helped me endure,” she says.
But especially when she was held in the all-male “clubhouse,” she was locked in her room and subjected to capricious restrictions and mean jokes. Although her jailers often insisted that she was a sister and not an enemy, and that they would let her go in the end, that promise wore very thin after 82 days of “adrenalin and chronic fatigue.”
Carroll’s quick wit no doubt increased her chances of survival. One strategy was her offer to “interview” the leader of the group:
At the clubhouse, he also appeared eager to have me “interview” him. He seemed to have begun to view me as a messenger—an idea I had been pushing, hoping it would give them a reason to set me free. My hands always shook when I did these “interviews.”  Like all interactions with my captors, they felt like mine fields, or chess games.
Carroll is never explicit about her view of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, though she does describe fantasies of rescue by US Marines. She is clearly passionate about being a foreign correspondent, determined to report on the actual experiences of Iraqis and deeply respectful of Islamic culture.
Her memoir opens a window onto the daily lives and aims of an armed Sunni group associated with the Wahhabists from abroad. She was relieved from the outset that her jailers were Iraqis rather than foreign-born insurgents, whom she judged more likely to behead their hostages, a recurring nightmarish fear. Yet, though Iraqi, her captors were closely allied with the Jordanian al-Zarqawi’s foreign fighters—they were mostly devout jihadis who regarded secular insurgents as useful in the struggle, but “impure” and unsuitable for participation in government after the mujahideen’s final victory.
Carroll also sheds light on the descent into civil war. In the vicious cycle of attack and counterattack that followed the bombing of the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra on February 24, 2006, Carroll observed a change of focus away from the occupation forces. “Today they had a different target: Shiites.” A week or so later, one of her guards,
[i]n his state of agitation and boredom,… began raising suspicions about the Shiite neighbors. They didn't know I was there. They didn't appear to know that the men at this house were mujahideen. They'd drop off fresh bread or yogurt, or stop to chat outside, just as Iraqis had done for generations. They did not yet recognize that those days of amity were over.
Carroll’s memoir is a riveting, fast-moving chronological narrative from kidnap to release and homecoming. An account by her colleague Peter Grier of the efforts of her family and “Team Jill,” the Christian Science Monitor working party, is interspersed with her perspective as a captive. Carroll’s story has tension, drama and—perhaps surprisingly —flashes of anodyne humour:
[O]ne of my guards… wore a suicide vest inside the clubhouse… He would mime for me what would happen if soldiers came, showing how he'd put it on, with shoulder straps, and then how two wires would connect. Then he would move his hands outward in a big motion indicating an explosion, look upward, and go, “BOOM!”
Neither Carroll nor Sgrena intends to return to work in Iraq. Amid murder, kidnap and “friendly fire,” the attrition of unembedded journalists, both foreign and Iraqi, proceeds. The outside world has to rely more and more on major news organizations with security budgets and on press releases from US authorities—the very sources whose disinformation greased the path to the invasion in the first place.
Kerryn Higgs is the author of All That False Instruction (1975), Australia's first lesbian novel, reissued by Spinifex Press in 2001. She is a freelance environmental writer, currently working on a book entitled No Limits? The Rise of Growth Economics on a Finite Planet.

 

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